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Falling for "Laura"

She might be dead, but she gets to us all in the end

I fell for Laura at a young age. Late teens, maybe early twenties. What matters is I fell, and I fell hard. Harder than a maths paper. And I'm not talking no GCSEs here. I mean O-levels. Yeah, that hard.

You're probably wondering who this Laura is anyway, and what makes her so special she gets a whole movie named after her. Ain't that the sort of honour that only goes to those rarefied folk at the top of life's unruly pile? You know what I'm yapping about: Patton, Malcolm X, Sheena: Queen of the Jungle.

Well, her name's Laura Hunt, and she got to me the same as she got to everyone: to Waldo Lydecker, to Detective Mark McPherson, to every big lug in braces or puny squirt in spats who ever crossed her path. Hell, she even got to those tough guys at the American Film Institute, who went and put her flick in their all-time top five mystery movies, lagging behind a pair of Hitchcocks and a Polanski. Not too shabby, eh? But then Laura, and Laura herself, gets to us all in the end.

Look at that name: Laura Hunt. Don't go thinking it's no accident either. See, the hunt is what this is all about: the hunt for a murderer, the hunt for love and the hunt to find out how the hell those two things get all muddled up like your reds and your whites on a bad wash-day.

I hate to break it to you without passing the Kleenex first, but Laura's dead. I'm only giving it to you blunt because that's the way the movie lays it on us. Curtains part, music soars and the last name in the opening titles starts to fade from view. (That name being Otto Preminger, the genius who cooked up this stew in 1944. Stepped in as director, he did, when Rouben Mamoulian turned out not to know Bo Diddley about keeping the pot simmering on a slow-cooking dish like this.) So the movie begins and you clock a voice that's like a violin bow playing the hairs on the back of your neck: "I shall never forget the weekend Laura died..." Yeah, you heard right. How's that for a curveball? You go see a movie called Laura and the dame pulls a Citizen Kane on you, going belly-up when you've barely sat down.

This is no ordinary flick we're talking about. This is the sort of movie you see once, it changes you forever. Sent my head spinning it did, faster than a turntable cranked by "Goose" Gossage on a caffeine jag. Felt like I'd been bashed on the nut with a bottle of Black Pony -- the same one that turns up in Laura's drinks cabinet after she's been bumped off.

Don't get me wrong. I may have been a green teen but I'd seen a few films noir before. Nothing like Laura, though. Nothing so twisted. Nothing that left me feeling as clammy as a clam in a clambake. You'd have to be on the wrong end of a Mob hit, five fathoms deep and with a bullet in your frontal lobe, not to notice something very fishy is up in the movie's world of creepy guys and shifty gals.

Take this Waldo fella, our humble narrator for the picture's first part, a ratty little columnist who bashes out copy in the tub. (No wonder the water looks so murky.) McPherson waltzes in to question him about what happened to Laura, and what does Waldo do but spring to his feet, naked as a babe (off-screen, praise the Hays Code) and ask the good detective to throw him a robe? Waldo walks with a cane, McPherson has a silver shinbone, and I'll refer you back to the good Dr Freud to pick over all the business with the rifle that gets passed back and forth between every significant male character in the movie.

First time I saw Laura, I stumbled out of that cinema with all manner of stars floating in front of my eyes. But mostly Gene Tierney: the square face of a lioness, the almond-shaped peepers, the lips pursed in a kiss full of lust you can't trust.

Now, I've got to be straight -- God knows a picture this crooked needs some truth talked about it -- and confess that Laura is not Tierney's peak. Not to these eyes. She's damn good and all, especially in a twisty little interrogation scene where the lighting is positively architectural. But if you want to be carrying your jaw around in a wheelbarrow after watching her then it's Leave Her to Heaven you need. You want chilling? Watch her in the rowboat scene. Keep your winter coat handy.

Laura is about more than any single performance. The trick is in the twist. Not even a twist: a disclosure, a tease, a tell. Halfway through the movie, McPherson realises he's gone sweeter than a toffee apple on a woman he's never met. Laura has got him. And he hasn't even had access to the flashbacks we've seen. What a dope. Dana Andrews plays it virtuous and upright, which makes it all the more delicious when he crumbles like a cookie under a cosh.

No spoilers here. But I'll say this: when McPherson falls asleep in Laura's armchair, and the camera zooms in on his snoozing mug and zooms back out again with a jolt, we're not just being encouraged to view what happens next as a fever-dream unspooling in his cuckoo subconscious -- we're practically being handed a gold-embossed invitation to take such a reading on board. I'm going to toss you out some lines from the script here:

"Have you ever dreamed of Laura as your wife...?" (Waldo)

"Get some sleep. Forget the whole thing like a bad dream." (McPherson)

"You're a vague sort of fellow, aren't you?" (McPherson to Shelby Carpenter, Laura's fiancé.)

And this, from Dowson, quoted by Waldo:

"They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream."

Talking about what happens in the second half of the movie, James Woods has called it "almost supernatural." Now, I wasn't brought up to pick a scrap with my betters, but I'll say this to Mr Woods: drop the "almost." This is a movie that ends on a close-up of a mangled clock-face, for pity's sake, all bent out of shape like some fool lent it to Salvador Dali.

Put it this way: there's a David Lynch season in full swing over at the BFI Southbank right about now. See Laura, which is back in cinemas again soon, then book your tickets for Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway. When you've got every nutty frame of all those movies rattling around in the attic, come back to me. And if you can say with a straight face and a steady jaw that those pictures aren't swimming in the same deep, dank water like skinny-dipping cousins 'neath a full moon, then the Black Pony's on me.

Laura opens on 24 February.